How some firms are bending over backwards to spoil us with flexible working

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Law is one of the oldest and most resilient professions. It has survived some of the most tumultuous periods in human history – war, pestilence, plague, coverage in RollOnFriday. But there’s an unfortunate flipside: law firms are hardly renowned for being innovators.

In the harsh conditions of recent recession, however, something different is happening.

Some law firms are choosing a different path to survival and recovery. One that not only impresses other law firms, but also wider industry.

These are the firms that are finding creative ways to support their people through the recession. And by so doing are not only avoiding redundancies, but ensuring a speedier route to recovery.

Their approach will have a long-term repercussions for people management in the legal profession because they’re proving that flexibility in law can work.

Flexible success

Norton Rose, for instance, has been widely credited for its Flex programme. The scheme worked by changing the terms and conditions of employment for one year, allowing Norton Rose to ask staff (as and when needed) to reduce their hours from five to four days a week (on 85 per cent pay), or take a sabbatical (on 30 per cent pay, spread over six months).

Norton Rose is not alone in implementing such a scheme – firms such as Lewis Silkin and Pinsent Masons have followed a similar path.

And evidence suggests that they’ve worked. The Flex programme, for instance, enabled Norton Rose to avoid making any redundancies. The firm was also able to end Flex three months early in January 2010, quickly returning to full capacity as the market improved.

The spread of flexibility

The significance of such innovation is that it has undoubtedly accelerated flexible working initiatives in the legal profession.

Two factors now play an important role in the take-up of flexible options. Firstly, the recession has proved that flexible programmes can work for both employers and employees.

Secondly, as lawyers and business services staff see more firms successfully offering flexible working, it becomes the expected norm, a trend which is compounded by changing generational requirements.

Extensive research points to a younger generation that highly values work/life balance and expects options for flexible working that go with it.

Today, flexible working initiatives continue apace. Even the largest and most traditional magic circle firms are offering some level of flexible working.

Allen & Overy, for instance, recently implemented a carefully structured part-time initiative for equity partners. And in 2010 Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer launched a pilot scheme to trial some flexible working in its corporate team.

But it is the mid-tier firms that continue to prove themselves the real innovators in this area. In a competitive market, they have realised that where they may not be able to offer the top salaries, flexible working initiatives can give them the edge in attracting the best talent.

Hence, Pinsent Masons does not just allow for part-time workers, but also now offers them the possibility of bonuses for exceptional performance.

There may yet be some way to go in this respect. It’ll take some time before all lawyers feel that there are enough options on the table to ensure work/life balance.

But a few resourceful firms faced with the challenge of recession undoubtedly pushed the boundaries for flexible working in law – and at the same time proved that law firms can after all combine tradition with innovation. CP

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